The offseason: challenges, money, and market

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When the TrueHoop writers were asked to cast their votes for end-of-year awards I gave Excutive of the Year honors to R.C. Buford. If we re-did the voting tomorrow, I wouldn’t change a thing.

To my mind, the Spurs’ success this season was entirely to the credit of their front office and coaching staff. Towards the end of the season, I was asked by ESPN Chicago to debate whether Gregg Popovich or Tom Thibodeau deserved Coach of the Year. I made two arguments in favor of Popovich, one long, one short. The short one went like this:

The Spurs are on pace to win 67 games. Is anyone else on their roster deserving of an award of any sort? In the absence of other explanations for their historic stomp, it really ought to be obvious — score one for the coach.

The Spurs began to misfire shortly after the argument was published, but, in principle, one could say the same thing for Buford.

The other part of the argument goes like this: the Spurs were demolished by the Phoenix Suns in the 2010 playoffs. Everyone — fans, T.V. talking heads, and sportswriters — were unanimous in their assessment. The Spurs, they said, needed to blow it up. Pre-draft rumors began to swirl, and suddenly we were reading silly things, like the Spurs trading Tony Parker to the Pacers for a stale sandwich.

But R.C. Buford showed enough wisdom to stay the course. He didn’t do anything dramatic. He simply filled in the cracks with players like Gary Neal and Tiago Splitter. The Spurs, despite their disappointing finish, still greatly overachieved by winning 61 games. Vegas, you’ll remember, saw the Spurs at 40-something wins prior to the season. Through 82 games, San Antonio was the best team in the Western Conference. No one thought San Antonio would achieve as much as they did last season.

These next few months will likely feel like Deja Vu for Buford. A year later, the Spurs are faced with the same questions. How do the Spurs remain competitive now and in the future? That is, now while they still have Tim Duncan and, later, when they won’t. And even that challenge is tempered by a sober reality. Having Tim Duncan now is not the same as having Tim Duncan 3 years ago. In other words, San Antonio’s current core is not as good as their 2007 core.

It’s fairly easy to pinpoint the challenges before the Spurs:

  1. their best players are old
  2. they are, at best, a mediocre defensive team
  3. they lack size

Let’s consider each of these briefly.

The Spurs are Old

Tim Duncan is 35, and because of his postseason success, has played more games than most 35 year olds. If the Spurs expect to keep Tim Duncan healthy, how many minutes a game can he play next season? 26? Assume a dip in production and minutes from Duncan, and remember that Antonio McDyess is retiring. The Spurs will have plenty of frontcourt minutes available, and they’ll need good production from whomever supplies those minutes.

Manu Ginobili turns 34 in July. When was the last time he entered a postseason healthy?

Mediocre Defensive Team

Tim Duncan was San Antonio’s best defensive player this season. On his efforts alone, Duncan kept the Spurs from becoming a below average defensive team. George Hill had moments of defensive brilliance, but because of the Spurs’ lack of reliable small forwards, is too often expected to defend out of position. Tiago Splitter looks like a promising defensive player, and there is no reason to doubt the Spurs will improve by giving him consistent minutes.

Otherwise, the Spurs don’t have any player one would consider a defensive specialist. Moreover, Richard Jefferson is two-years into the Spurs’ system and still looks lost. Speaking plainly, Jefferson has been a bust on both sides of the ball. Jefferson turns 31 this summer. He is who he is as a basketball player. He won’t get any better.

The Jefferson problem is further exacerbated by the Spurs best offensive squads often featuring three-guard sets. Gary Neal is shooter and gives effort on defense, but he simply can’t be expected to guard players like Shane Battier.

The Spurs’ wing rotation is heavy on quality shooting guards and light on capable, defensive-minded small forwards. The Spurs have given themselves a punchers chance with James Anderson, Danny Green and Da’Sean Butler, but they may need to bring another body into camp to have a realistic chance of upgrading the position.

Finally, the Spurs’ efforts are greatly hindered by featuring two defensive liabilities in the interior, Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair. Again, both players should receive applause for their effort. But effort alone is not enough to make DeJuan Blair taller or transform Matt Bonner into a capable post defender.

That sounds harsh. I like both players. And, I think, Bonner gave a commendable effort against the Grizzlies — does anyone doubt that he played hard? But Bonner has already hit his ceiling. He’s as good as he’s ever going to be. The Spurs need to look at alternatives.

The Youngsters

The Spurs’ best players are old, but the majority of their rotation is relatively young, especially considering the retirement of McDyess. Nevertheless, the Spurs do not have a single youngster who is on an All-Star trajectory. George Hill, Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, James Anderson, and DeJuan Blair are candidates for career rotation players, but none of them will become All-Stars.

Current contenders go three and four All-Stars deep. The Spurs, rightly understood, go about 2.5 All-Stars deep. And, sadly, it’s debatable whether Tim Duncan will see another All-Star game.

I’m not suggesting the Spurs break up their core. But I am suggesting the Spurs’ central talent base is less than that of their peers.

Payroll and Market

It’s difficult to project how well the Spurs have managed their salary cap without knowing the particulars of the next CBA. In general, the Spur have done well. Duncan’s massive contract expires next summer. Jefferson, Ginobili, and Parker have manageable contracts. The Spurs won’t be able to acquire a game-changer on the free agent market this summer, but they’re not 5 years away either.

But this is a moot point.

When was the last time the Spurs landed a huge free agent (excluding Jackie Butler)?

San Antonio built the foundation of their championship teams through the draft — David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker. They’ve filled in the cracks through free agency.

This leads me to believe San Antonio’s most pressing challenge is not personnel or payroll, it’s their market. No one doubts the Spurs’ ability to find great role players, whether the next Bruce Bowen or Gary Neal. But can they find another All-Star late in the draft?

The allure of playing in San Antonio has never been the city itself. Rather, it’s always been the opportunity to play with Tim Duncan. The Spurs can no longer play that card.

And that allure, it should be said, was most attractive to aging vets. Guys like Robert Horry who wanted a chance at a ring. But now that the Spurs’ core is older than the aging vets they used to attract, the Spurs need to flip the script—San Antonio needs to attract free agents who are in their mid to late 20s, not their early to mid 30s.

In short, the Spurs’ front office needs to get lucky and creative between now and next postseason. I don’t think the front office has ever faced such a challenging offseason. San Antonio’s recovery strategy must change on a number of fundamental levels. The Spurs’ front office is, perhaps, the best in American sports. But it’s still a hard row to hoe.

  • DorieStreet

    Come on people—the Spurs winning game 1 would not have crushed the Grizz and had us skipping into the conferences semis a week ago yesterday or a week or tomorrow. Memphis wasn’t going to drop their heads play listlessly & slink away- even if they went down 0-2. The way some fans keep rehashing it, you make the Spurs the mentally weaker team—the playoff experience (and history) of the top team in the west couldn’t overcome the “giddiness” and confidence boost of a neophyte playoff team stealing the first series game on the road. That doesn’t paint a pretty picture IMO. Despite it being their first time in the party, they were ready to rock–and especially against the Spurs. The best it could said is that the Spurs were overconfident, despite 3 of the 4 regular seasongames going down to the last minute and overtime. That was probably due to that we were always missing a player in those games (Hill in #1, Parker for 2nd half in #2 & all of #3, Duncan in #4). And once the series started and realized it was a dogfight—the Spurs were the weaker dog, but not by much.

    Stop singing that Lou Rawls tune: “If I Woulda Coulda Shoulda” and let it go.

  • DorieStreet

    That is really what it comes down to: the structure and the style of the 2010-11 Spurs was going to make it tough in the playoffs. I remember posting that it may take us 28 games to win the title (going 4-3 each round). But the execution problems in the final minutes of the 4th qtr–which you, Hobson 13, posted earlier, started during the last part of the season–plagued this team into the opening round and got them bounced.

  • DorieStreet

    Jon (aka GNwsSE)

    Great post–and Welcome to the site -and San Antonio when you get there.

    Sometimes the end is abrupt –devestating injury; but most times it is a long, slow slide that can be almost imperceptible, but it’s there. The amazing skills and triumphant moves are seen less and less each season; the “he’s lost a half-step” morphs into a “he’s lost a step”–and then you sit down and watch one day/night and it’s become “he’s just a shell of his former self.”

    But as unpleasant as the end will be, we fans have the memories–and will have the opportunites–to honor and praise “The Big Fundamental” (I forget-who first tagged him with that title?) once he leaves the court for the last time.

    Don’t let this first post be your last–your ‘solutions’ or ‘suggestions’ or just opinions–are just as welcome as any other Spurs’ fan.

    We’ll be back on top; just have to approach the task with foresight and good planning, so it doesn’t take long.

  • Nima K.

    I know of a gap filling solution that may fix the Spurs team in the short run, until we get another franchise player in a couple of years:

    Do whatever it takes to signup Nene.

  • Rob

    Would a team value Jefferson enough to pay his salary AND give up a player (or two) on their roster to make the numbers work? I don’t know. It would have to be a team that thinks they can get out of Jefferson what the Spurs couldn’t AND view a player on their team at that salary to be as unproductive to them on the court.

    If that be the case…would that player be the player the Spurs would want on their team?

    What team out their has a higher priced wing or post that isn’t fitting into that other team’s system that would fit with the Spurs?

  • Chris

    I kind of like this, only because it may take Parker to get another team to take on Jefferson’s contract. Of the Big 3, Parker’s skill set is the most replaceable.

  • Len

    I disagree. Tiago has 15/10 potential if he can ever shoot 70% FT’s.

  • Len

    You would “be counted out” if the Spurs aren’t a playoff force anymore? Isn’t that what a bandwagon fan is?

    Ya know, the Spurs have had a hell of a run since they got big Dave, a lot of it was due to a bad injury and a lucky bounce of a ping pong ball. All franchises have periods of mediocre (at best) play after years of dominance. Go back in history and look at the great teams; Celtics after Bird, Lakers after showtime, Pistons post Bad boy, Bulls after MJ, even what the Pistons are currently going thru. They all had tough times after the good times ended. If you expect the Spurs to not have a dip after what they have just accomplished, than you have some unrealistic expectations.

  • Mat

    Spurs should go after Iguoldala. He skipped his exit meeting after they were eliminated from the playoffs and from interviews he doesn’t sound like he’s too excited to return to Philly. Offer Blair, Hill, Anderson, and Richard Jefferson for Iggy, Mo Speights, and the 76ers first round draft pick. Then try to convince Duncan to terminate his contract and sign him to a multi-year deal for less per year. Then go after Dalembert and a decent back-up point guard through free agency. Bring over Ryan Richards next year?

  • Mat

    Or if they really believe in G. Hill and want to become tougher and more defensive-minded, trade parker, jefferson, anderson, and blair for iguodala, speights, nocioni, and their first-round pick. Maybe even try to get them to throw in jrue holiday or lou williams instead of the draft pick.

  • Mat

    Or if they really believe in G. Hill and want to become tougher and more defensive-minded, trade parker, jefferson, anderson, and blair for iguodala, speights, nocioni, and their first-round pick. Maybe even try to get them to throw in jrue holiday or lou williams instead of the draft pick.

  • td4life

    I liked Marc Gasol in the draft and was shocked he went so low (I wanted SA to take him), that said the Grizz are nowhere without plenty of other moves, and even Gasol was a gamble. But trading Pau needed to be done (just like the Spurs are going nowhere if they don’t blow it up), they just should have gotten more back in return.

    Trading AI was the best thing Philly did in ages, he was a star personality, but perhaps the most overrated player in NBA history. Philly didn’t take a step backward after he left, and Denver didn’t improve once he arrived. His legacy was defined when he traded jobs with Billups and Denver took off, while Detroit was ruined.

  • GMT

    Let’s aim for 60% first, haha. I doubt his FT% will jump 15-20 percentage points higher any time soon. What we can do to get him more points is figure out how to integrate him in the offense and actually run plays for him.

  • mac

    Asik is a desirable player, I completely agree. However, I doubt Chicago parts with him. Rose is just getting warmed up, and bigs take 3 or 4 years to get their game together. Chicago has to already be thinking about life after Boozer’s contract, and I am sure they are thinking Asik plays a big role for them.

    All the same, RC should try to find out. Manu would be extremely useful to them, but they would have to replace Asik. We know Tom T understands the neccessity of the 4 and 5 positions to an elite defense, and is likely aware of what Gortat and Marc Gasol bring to their respective teams.

    The Bulls will be in the bidding for Afflalo.

  • Sam

    I agree with everything except “I’m not really sure who would be interested in Bonner.” I Think Bonner made his trade stock higher because of leading the league in 3 pt %. Philadelphia is not a 3pt shooting team. This is proven because they were 15th in the league in % and 23rd and 24th in makes and attempts respectively. A draft pick in this year’s draft is not that important because honestly, this draft just plain sucks. Next year is the real deal.

  • Rob

    Just having fun here. But go for broke. Offer Jefferson, Splitter and Hill for Al Jefferson. The Jazz have a ton of bigs that can make up for the loss of Jefferson including getting a developmental Splitter into their system. Jefferson provides what Kirilenko had been providing at half the cost. So if Kirilenko goes to another team in free agency…no big loss. Hill provides that perimeter D and scoring touch that Utah missed this season.

    Of course Spurs get that dynamic center still in his prime. SF’s available in free agency….Butler, Prince, Chandler (R), McGrady, Battier, Grant Hill, and…Kirilenko.

    Neal or Anderson works in place of George Hill as well.

  • Hobson13

    If 17+ years is a bandwagon fan then so be it. However, if the organization acts this summer then perhaps our dip won’t be as bad as the teams you mentioned and maybe we can even continue to be contenders. If the FO doesn’t have the balls to pull the trigger on deals then get ready for basketball winter in SA.

  • Hassan

    I like this trade but I do not think Charlote would do it unless we add a first Rounder as RJ is not close to Stephen Jackson who is still a great defensive player if dialed in…

  • Hassan

    doesn’t solve the big man problem as he is not that good..we should go after Dalembert with MLE and do sign & trade with memphis for Shane Battier…

  • Hassan

    Charlotte won’t….

  • Hassan

    Yeah.. I have some thoughts..They must be crazy to give you these players….

  • Hassan

    Agree

  • Hassan

    Add Kyle Korver and then we are taking….

  • Hassan

    agreed…..

  • Colin Rigney

    Jefferson is not a good 1v1 defender and even worse help defender. However, I love his offensive skill set.

  • bayareaspursfan

    I think Blair has the skill set to develope into a wing player. I think he is quick enough to guard the big forwards, he is knowledgeable in the post to keep the forwards from posting him up. He just needs to develope the outsideshot and ball handeling skills. I said after his first season that he had to get better so he would not get abused by the taller post players. Quit playing Blair at center and develope him into a powerforward.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joseph-Dooley/9203055 Joseph Dooley

    We passed on Luis Scola four years ago. Big mistake.

  • Titletown990308507d

    No your crazy and time will prove it to you.

  • Titletown990308507d

    Like Battier wants to come here? Who do you give up for Battier?

  • Titletown990308507d

    Is Brewer that good to part with Manu?

  • Titletown990308507d

    He’s got something Splitter and Blair doesn’t have and that’s a sweet feathery touch of a shot and from 3 pt arc as well. The only thing is being man handled by the NBA bigs. He’s needs some of that before he can demand attention. If he can get in game shape with the U20’s now or soon as they start which he said he’ll be playing in the summer. I don’t know where that leaves him in regards to this summer league and D-league development. By the reports looks like he had to give in to RC and Pop’s demands to play the U20’s or it might only be contractual and he needs to full fill his obligation before he lands here. Who knows maybe he’ll be down here for training camp? Here’s a little something for people wanting to see a rehabing Richards. Remember he just got back from rehabing those shoulders.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gr-r_19OWmI

  • Titletown990308507d

    Forgot to mention he’s 7 foot now barefoot with no socks.

  • Titletown990308507d

    Ha Ha my ass dude when they let him play 25 minutes he was getting 1 rebound shy of a double double if you watched any games he was allowed to play and saw the box scores then you would understand my point. I think the extra 5 points your talking about you don’t think he can get those in 35 minutes of play. That’s 5 more points in 10 more minute of play. What a joke. I’m saying it now if they let this guy play 30- 35 minutes every game he will average 15/10 and thats only if they work the ball to him on PNR’s. I’m for letting him play a shit load more than Timmy. Fromn here on out Timmy needs to take the back seat if not what’s the point.

  • Titletown990308507d

    Forgot about that Len. Your exactly right. If he works on the free throws this summer and makes 75-80% this coming season than even more a reason he gets his 15/10. Good one.

  • Titletown990308507d

    Dorie check him out at 2:10. That’s a smooth stroke. And he’s 19. add 20lbs and 2 years NBA experience under his belt and at 21 with Splitter and the other bigs we get in FA, trade or picks and we could be seeing a good front court by 2013.

  • Titletown990308507d

    Rebuilding on the fly for me means moving Bonner, RJ somehow even if you have to throw in one or two young players not named Splitter, JA. Other than that its starts to become a blow it up process. That won’t happen. The FO is too loyal to the people (Core3) who gave this town the rich basketball history. That’s the only scenario I see happening getting lucky on some picks, trades, FA and cutting loose the dead weight.

  • Tyler

    I agree that both are decent rotation players (Asik being the 3rd or 4th big on a good team, and Brewer being your 3rd or 4th guard off the bench)

    But again, these are both guys that will be the 7-8th guy in the rotatiion – that’s not good value IMO. Surely Manu could fetch more.

  • Tyler

    If it were only that easy….

  • Titletown990308507d

    I think at this point if nothing spectacular happens in player personnel this off season then focusing on the young talent during the coming season and getting their potential developed while the process of winning say 50 games and having a better showing in the playoffs than the season that just finished is more accepting than having a huge number of wins during the regular season just to see it all piss away in the first rounds. In summary if it takes loses to get better as a team and put a good showing come playoff time I’m all for it. I don’t care about the impressive number of wins during the season. I’d rather be the guy no one sees in the room instead of the pink elephant taking up space.

  • Titletown990308507d

    As long as RC is still with the organization we’ll be competitive. He has a knack for getting surprise players with talent and tons of potential. By the way I read in an article that RC was the one who wanted Splitter here not Pop. HHMMM? Now it’s all coming together.

  • Tyler

    Watched quite a few Bulls games this year and no doubt Asik played well, but it was really the play of Kurt Thomas and Gibson that kept them afloat. Thomas was fantastic when Noah went down, going from DNP’s to playing 30+ minutes many games, while Gibson was pretty good early filling in for Boozer. So while Asik was part of it, Chicago owes more of its success to those two.

    And I think it’s a stretch to classify Asik as one of the best interior defenders in the league. I think he’s a good defender, but not among the 10-12 best in the pivot.

  • Titletown990308507d

    If they stop screwing with his shot than maybe he’ll get there. He didn’t have a problem in Europe and he definitely could shoot from the outside when he played the Liga. I don’t know but when these guys first saw his form they wanted to change everything and ended up ruining not only his shot but his confidence. Just let him shoot the way he did even if it looks unorthodox. He was 64 % in 2009-2010 in Europe before he came to shoot at an NBA free throw line. Better than the 53 % that he had this season with Chip.

  • Titletown990308507d

    At least Dallas did it first.

  • Tyler

    Agreed. If he’s healthy, he’s the most valuable trade chip they currently have. Cleveland probably asks for more than we can give up.

  • Titletown990308507d

    If we could that would be great. I really would hate to see Parker go. Too good of a player just to let go for RJ’s contract.

  • Titletown990308507d

    I think Parker helps us more than he hurts us.

  • Titletown990308507d

    Bonner and Blair need to go forcing us to go get a real big. Screw the spacing the floor shit. We need tall experienced beef under the rim.

  • Titletown990308507d

    Great post. but don’t give up on our team, organization. The difference between this organization and others even bigger markets is that our’s get it and they know what it takes to win now. We might have a hiccup for one or two years but were not going 26 more years to be competitive on an elite level. Lucky for us our FO have the formula down regardless of what has transpired and can get the right people and plug them in when needed.Even though Timmy will be leaving soon I know this organization will get the right players and staff in here to get the job done. Once your bit by the championship bug it becomes part of you and an obsession to get back to that level that yielded you that experience not just for the fans but for the organization itself. I call it a speed bump. New faces same result. that’s my assessment.
    The day we don’t have a team anymore is the day we stop being competitive.

    Oh yeah, welcome to the family.

  • Titletown990308507d

    Man thats a lot of youth going the other way. Out of the the ones mentioned for trade what if JA blows up? I wouldn’t risk JA for that trade for the reason we really don’t know what we have yet. The others ok.

  • Titletown990308507d

    I’ll keep Parker instead. Send hill off. Parker can penetrate and get by bigs a whole lot better than Hill can. I’m not sold on Hill taking Parkers spot, besides he’s not a point.